I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what makes comedy funny. I’ve always thought that comedy was harder to write than drama. Because with drama you have to know the rules of good storytelling and you have to follow those rules. But with comedy you have to know the rules AND then you have to break those rules. I believe that’s why our great comedians are also great dramatic actors. Like Robin Williams and Whoopie Goldberg. You have to be a good dramatic actor/storyteller before you break the rules and create comedy.
Comedy comes from pain. (Puns are the only exceptional to this rule.) The more painful something is, the funnier it is. This is why some comedy could be labeled as cruel. I think Groucho Marx said it best when he told a magazine reporter, “All comedy comes from pain. To illustrate, consider this… You can take a young man and dress him up as an old woman. Put him in a wheelchair. Push him down a hill where he runs into a brick wall. That’s funny. But, you take a REAL old lady, put her in a wheelchair, push her down the same hill into the same brick wall… and THAT’S comedy.”
Groucho also had his own hit TV show, “You Bet Your Life,” a quiz show of the 1950’s. He was legendary for his verbal play with the contestants. One time he was interviewing a female contestant who told him she had been married eight years, and she had nine children. To which Groucho quipped, “Holy cow, lady, I like my cigar, but I like to take it out of my mouth once in awhile.” That was the last episode of the show. And if you don’t think that was painful, just talk to the contestant who was humiliated on live TV…
So, here’s the number one comedy rule you need to ALWAYS use: Keep it real and make it painful.
The number two rule? EVERYTHING is funny. But more on that another time.